Hospice workers help make miracles happen

Everyday across Canada miracles happen. Not the variety that change destiny, nor influence the outcome of world events. These little miracles are of the kind that touch hearts, bring families closer together… and make people’s dying wishes come true.

"My dad wanted nothing more than to spend his final weeks at home," says Sylvia Cannon, a writer living in Barrie, Ont. "At first it didn’t seem as if we’d be able to respect his wishes. All his kids were working, and it was difficult juggling time between our families and jobs." But it wasn’t long before Sylvia’s father and his circle of caregivers found themselves receiving help from a variety of sources they didn’t even know were available. With a little guidance from the family doctor, she was hooked up with a local hospice group that was able to provide the physical, emotional and practical support she and her siblings needed in order to "bring dad home."

"As far as we were concerned, it was a miracle," she says. "We had all but resigned ourselves to the inevitability of dad ending his days in unfamiliar — and not very intimate — surroundings. But the help we received from t hospice volunteers who came and spent time with us, who gave us a break, was phenomenal."

In the days leading up to her father’s death, the help Sylvia and her family received with everyday tasks like bathing him, cooking and cleaning — even shopping and making trips for coffee and donuts — meant more quality time spent with their loved one.

Sylvia and her family are certainly not alone in their need for hospice care. Today, nearly three million Canadians find themselves in similar circumstances, trying to cope with a loved ones’s long-term or terminal health problem while getting on with their own lives as best they can. And in the next 10 years, as the number of Canadians aged 65 and over rises dramatically, the burden upon families and caregivers will increase exponentially.

Somewhat surprisingly, however, public awareness of hospice and palliative care remains low. In a recent survey, only half of Canadians said they had even heard of hospice care, and only 30 per cent correctly defined it as care for someone with a long-term or terminal illness. This in spite of the fact existing hospice and palliative care, although in its formative stages, already boasts more than 600 participating organizations across the country, providing support to patients and families coping with life threatening illnesses such as cancer, AIDS, lung disease, Alzheimer’s and heart disease.

Despite this lack of awareness, "Demand for hospice and palliative care is growing rapidly," says Linda Lysne, Executive Director, Canadian Palliative Care Association. "We want, and need to see hospice and palliative care gain more prominence in our healthcare system."

Indeed, what Lysne wants may already be happening. In Ontario alone, the Hospice Association of Ontario — Canada’s largest volunteer hospice organization — has seen its volunteer base grow from eight member organizations in 1989 to nearly 90 this year, a phenomenal growth rate of 1,000 per cent. As a result, 1998 saw more than 7,800 people in Ontario dedicating more than 436,000 hours of volunteer services to hospice, most of it spent in the homes of people living with life-threatening or terminal illnesses.